HELENA, Mont. (AP) -- Moves to stifle the voice of the first transgender woman elected to Montana's legislature over her stand on gender-affirming care for children may have silenced her in the chambers of the state House, but Rep. Zooey Zephyr said she's confident they've only amplified her message to constituents at home and others watching across the nation.
"There are many more eyes on Montana now," Zephyr said in an interview with The Associated Press. "But you do the same thing you've always done. You stand up in defense of your community and you ... stand for the principles that they elected you to stand for."
Zephyr was thrust into the national spotlight last week when she was prevented from speaking in the House after telling lawmakers backing a bill to ban gender-affirming medical care for minors that they would have blood on their hands. The Republican response to her comments, and her refusal to apologize for them as demanded, have transformed the lawmaker into a prominent figure in the nationwide battle for transgender rights and placed her at the center of the ongoing debate over the muffling of dissent in statehouses.
The attention is a new phenomenon for Zephyr, a 34-year-old serving her first term representing a western Montana college town after being elected last November. She will spend her first day in legislative exile when the Montana House reconvenes Thursday morning, a day after the Republican majority voted to bar her from the House floor for the rest of the session.
Lawmakers made the move in retaliation for her participation in a protest that disrupted Monday's floor session. Protestors upset that she was prevented from taking part in House debates after making her comments packed the gallery and chanted "Let her speak!"
She stood by the remarks even after House Speaker Matt Regier said they violated decorum rules and demanded she apologized.
"The Montana House will not be bullied," Regier said this week. He said the only person preventing Zephyr from speaking was Zephyr herself.
In her interview with the AP, Zephyr likened efforts to silence her to the decision by Tennessee lawmakers to expel two Black representatives for disrupting proceedings when they participated in a gun control protest after a school shooting in Nashville that killed three children and three adults. The two were quickly reinstated.
"That's exactly what I'm talking about, is when young Black men stand up and say 'We have a gun violence problem in this country' and you are failing to recognize it, you're failing to take action on it," she said.
Tennessee lawmakers not only rejected gun control laws, but by expelling the lawmakers they sent a message saying: "Your voices shouldn't be here. We're going to send you away," Zephyr said.
GOP leaders in Tennessee had said their actions were necessary to avoid setting a precedent that lawmakers' disruptions of House proceedings through protest would be tolerated.
Zephyr's stand has drawn attention from lawmakers throughout the country. On Tuesday, Tennessee Rep. Justin Pearson, one of the lawmakers who was expelled earlier this month, called the Montana standoff anti-democratic.
"We will not let our democracy die without fighting for every voice. We are in this fight from Memphis to Montana!" he tweeted.
"The attack in Montana on Rep. Zephyr is an attack on all of us," said Nebraska state Sen. Megan Hunt.
Hunt, who has a transgender son, has spearheaded the charge against a similar proposal to ban gender-affirming care. She was served notice Wednesday of an official complaint filed against her that she said was an effort to silence her voice on the issue.
"It's so important that we not be silent about this from state to state to state. And it's so important that people stand up against this rising movement, this radical movement, and say it is not welcome," Hunt said.
Zephyr is undeterred. She said throughout the events of the past week, she has both aimed to rise and meet the moment and continue doing the job she was elected to do: representing her community and constituents.
"It's queer people across the world and it's also the constituents of other representatives who are saying 'They won't listen' when it comes to these issues. It's staff in this building who, when no one is looking, come up and say 'Thank you,'" she said.